As languages disappear
By Sikandar Ali Hullio
THE 10th International Mother Language Day was observed on Feb 21 by native speakers of almost 7,000 languages around the world. This included some linguists in our civil society.
The occasion was initiated at Unesco’s General Conference in November 1999 and has been observed every year since February 2000 to endorse cultural diversity and multilingualism. The UN also declared last year as the International Year of Languages, to promote and protect the many dimensions of linguistic diversity.
According to the agency’s 2008 estimates, more than half of the 7,000 thousand languages spoken globally face extinction as they are not represented in government, education and the media. At present, 96 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by just four per cent of its population, 80 per cent of African languages have no orthography and several languages are being spoken by just a handful of speakers. Also, on average one language disappears every two weeks.
Every year, a sponsored celebration to promote language choice remembers the ‘martyrs of the mother tongue’: Bengali students killed on Feb 21, 1952, at a Dhaka demonstration demanding the recognition of Bengali as the mother tongue instead of Urdu. Since then, the language question has been brewing in Pakistan and needs a logical conclusion based on historic and linguistic grounds.
Throughout human history, languages as a discipline of linguistics have been vehicles for value systems and cultural expressions. They determine the identity of groups and individuals. Everything that transits through language embodies the national, cultural and sometimes the religious identity of individuals.
The history of language and politics in Pakistan clearly shows that with the declaration of Urdu as the national language, serious lingual concerns came to the fore. The speakers and proponents of other major vernaculars — Bengali, Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi, Seraiki, Balochi and others — felt threatened in terms of losing their respective identities and becoming marginalised because of linguistic issues. To date, none of them has been recognised as a national language — which doesn’t say much for attempts to unite the country. Urdu’s status as the sole national language in a multilingual country has always been a controversial area, causing division and resentment.
However, promoted as a token of unity by the state, more than 95 per cent of Pakistanis can now speak or understand it as their second or third language, but only about eight per cent of the population sees Urdu as its mother tongue. The declaration of Urdu as a national language has also been termed by radical critics as the cultural and linguistic genocide of indigenous languages in Pakistan.
This is interesting especially in a historical context where Urdu evolved during the decline of Muslim rule in South Asia, while Persian was the official language of the region during the Mughal reign. Meanwhile, language riots in Sindh during the seventies and the Baloch insurgency, where there has been a feeling of cultural and economic marginalisation, prove that the issue remains unresolved.
Most native languages of Pakistan are part of the Indo-Aryan languages with Iranian languages being more significant in the west and Dardic ones in the north and northwest. As per 1998 figures, the percentage of Pakistanis who speak Punjabi is 44 per cent, Pushto 15 per cent, Sindhi 14 per cent, Seraiki 10 per cent, Urdu eight per cent, Balochi four per cent while others stand at five per cent.Promoting these languages to the status of national languages is the best solution to the problem of politicised lingual identities. This would ensure better preservation of these languages, culture, unity and respect among various ethnic groups, besides strengthening the federation at a critical juncture of history.
The present coalition government led by the PPP, which is widely represented by all ethnic and linguistic identities, is in a better position to initiate this debate with open-mindedness and flexibility towards accepting and adding major languages to the list of national languages which at present contains only name. For this purpose, the constitution would need to be amended and substituted with changes in Article 251(1) so that there is mention of Balochi, Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi, Seraiki and Urdu as the national languages of Pakistan instead of only Urdu as per the existing constitutional provision.
Moreover, the application of Article 251(2) has already faced unnecessary delay — it states that the “English language may be used for official purposes until arrangements are made for its replacement by Urdu.” The arrangements were to be completed within 15 years.
Thirty years on, there is no progress and English remains the official language. Also, provincial assemblies may by law prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of a distinct language and script of culture by establishing institutions for that purpose, as already enshrined in the constitution.
If a multilingual country like India can have 18 languages including Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi as official regional languages under the sixth schedule of the Indian constitution, then we can honour and acknowledge the language movement, which after all began in Pakistan and is now celebrated by speakers of major, minor or vanishing languages across the globe.
The writer is a freelance columnist and works with an international development aid agency based in Islamabad.
Curtsey:DAWN.COM— PUBLISHED FEB 22, 2009